BOSTON — Did you hear the one about the mail carrier in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.? She didn't take big-enough steps, so the Post Office gave her her walking papers.
A bad joke? Sadly, no. It's a true story, played out on the delivery route of Martha Cherry, an 18-year postal employee. When a supervisor accompanied her and monitored the length of her stride, he criticized her for taking only 66 "baby steps" a minute. Her pace, he observed, added 13 minutes to her work day.
Although Ms. Cherry's customers consider her service above average, she received a letter of dismissal stating, "At each step, the heel of your leading foot did not pass the toe of the trailing foot by more than one inch."
The incident is the latest and most visible example of an increasingly popular management activity: tracking employees' work patterns. Call it monitoring or surveillance or a nonstop performance review. By whatever name, it's the updated version of George Orwell's warning that Big Brother Is Watching You.
Examples abound: Dial an airline and a recorded voice will say, "To ensure quality service, this call may be monitored." Phone a bank or an investment firm and a frequent high-pitched beep will signal that your conversation is also being recorded - for "quality."
But good service is only one objective. Equally important, from a management perspective, is the effort to maximize speed and productivity.
One friend, an airline reservation agent, has watched the monitoring - and the pressure - increase during the past six years.
"You never know when they're listening," he says. "Every year they raise the bar in terms of the time they allow you to complete a call. Things are more strict in terms of having to do more in less time. They're ratcheting up the pressure. It's becoming a harder job."
Such changes may be inevitable as companies reduce staffs and increase the workload for those remaining. But too much surveillance can backfire, creating an atmosphere of tension and mutual distrust. It also makes a mockery of the popular corporate line, "We're all a family."
Nor are employees the only ones affected. For customers, there is something vaguely unsettling about the recorded voices, however smooth, announcing monitored calls.
Still, bosses have always had to find ways to judge employees' work. As the reservation agent says, "You must also look at the management side. There are some workers who try to give the minimum performance."
But as the quest for productivity grows more intense, surveillance - human and computerized - casts a spreading shadow over the American workplace. Already computers count the keystrokes of data-entry clerks, sending a silent message: Type fast or you're out. And already computers for reservation agents track the seconds between calls and the minutes spent away from the phone. Anyone who exceeds the time limit during a break may be paged on an intercom. "That's embarrassing," says the agent.
It's all a bit too reminiscent of Orwell's vision of the future in "1984," where an omnipresent "telescreen" picks up any sound "above the level of a very low whisper" and tracks a person's action "so long as he remained within the field of vision." As Orwell explains, "You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
The temptation of technology is to reduce people to the status of machines and measure their worth accordingly. But as the mail carrier and the airline agent can both attest, the best way to get full efficiency from workers is to recognize the rich difference that favors a human being over a robot. That acknowledgment by corporate America will constitute one giant step in the right direction toward a less Orwellian future.